Nina, the original madwoman

Posted on June 25, 2012

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Nina, ossia La Pazza Per Amore Giovanni Paisiello, 1790 revision. Zurich Opera House 2002, Arthaus Musik DVD 2002. Conductor Adam Fischer, director Cesare Lievi. Directed for video and TV by Thomas Grimm. The documentary Giovanni Paisiello – Forgotten Genius is directed by Reiner E. Moritz. Cecilia Bartoli is Nina, Jonas Kaufmann Lindoro/Pastore, László Polgár Il Conte, Angelo Veccia Giorgio. More info

If you get the chance to watch this DVD, don’t miss the documentary feature included in the disc: it adds that extra bit of information and interpretation that makes the recording a collector’s item.  The two together, the production and the documentary, are an exciting historico-musicological statement. The production seen alone may leave you adrift.

The story is simple enough: a girl and a boy grow up together. When they’re old enough for him to propose, social obstacles intervene. The girl’s father is a Count, and the boy is reaching considerably above his station. There’s the mandatory duel and the boy gets mortally wounded. The girl goes mad. The opera starts with the father, now remorseful, coming to visit his daughter who doesn’t recognize him. She is taken care of by a trusted servant (what else could she be called but Susanna) and is prescribed daily mingling with the villagers and shepherds as a therapy of sorts. She meets a young shepherd who sings to her but she can only think of Lindoro. Eventually, Lindoro does show up – his wounds weren’t mortal etc. Il Conte, seeing the wrongness of his ways, accepts him into the family. Last third of the opera is spent trying to reacquaint Nina’s fantasy/memory of Lindoro with the Lindoro standing before her. At the end, all are reconciled.

It’s a strange and intriguing work. The arias, choruses and accompagnati are connected by the spoken dialogue. As all the singers on cast are excellent actors, this works well. As soon as Nina is introduced, the opera becomes one big mad scene, with changes of moods and keys, and slowdowns for the spoken dialogue. The music is recognizably Classical, but with many welcome unfamiliarities. The tenor sings his first aria accompanied only by the bagpiper on stage. It’s a moment of magic, with the fundamentally no-tune instrument fighting against a tonal tenor aria that is pleading and powerful at the same time. (Kaufmann at any rate made it that – he is still very young in this recording, but his voice is spectacular.) Then there are the moments of the kind of Romantic that we see in bel canto many years later. Nina gets to sing a cuckoo aria, in this case a concert aria by Mozart (apparently, 18th century composers did these switcharoos a lot), “Ah, lo previdi”. Later, in Act 2, the only buffo character in the opera gets to sing a stutter-cavatina.

The idea is to keep us guessing if Nina is really off her rocker or if she is pretending in order to make her father finally hear her. Lievi explains in the bonus feature that there was never any doubt that Nina is pretending, and with this sham madness creating a bit of freedom for herself for the first time. This is not necessarily clear by only watching the production. Bartoli is fantastic in the role, but you are never sure if Nina is acting consciously or not. There are no comic moments in the role, not for a second. This is as it should be, but will also make it impossible to even contemplate Nina’s performance as a fakery. She is fooling her father and she is also fooling the viewer a little too well.

Lievi adds an important interpretative intervention at the end of the opera. When the order is re-established and Lindoro takes over the position of the reigning aristocratic head of the household, Nina looks around, comprehends, frowns, and falls to the ground. A decidedly unhappy ending, and moreover, “probably the point when she actually goes mad” (Lievi in the interview).

Polgár’s bass is effortless and beautiful. The Count is always on stage, observing, and the singer made him into a pensive figure – we never really see the ruthless Count as he was before his remorseful conversion, so he is likeable the moment he enters, another insidious clever twist in the production. (Is that all it takes for us to buy the viewpoint of a figure of power – a beautiful bass and quiet handsomeness? The joke is on us.)

Angelo Veccia as excellent as the helper Giorgio both vocally and dramatically. Juliette Galstian plays Susanna a little too matronly and earnestly, but the singing is OK.

Video quality is not the best – there is a subtle graininess of a VHS transfer or an old TV recording. The set and costume design can’t be more traditional, but Nina is a work so rarely (never?) performed that you really need to give the viewers the ABCs first.

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